October is the month during which several health and wellness conversations are brought into the spotlight. With annual campaigns created to raise awareness about a number of health concerns, modern women now have an excess of information at their disposal, which may quite literally save their lives. While Ocsober is a social awareness campaign aimed at addressing a worldwide drinking problem, it is only one of two other major health campaigns running during October aimed at both educating and supporting those affected by some of the biggest health threats facing South African women today; mental illness and breast cancer.

1. Mental health

October is National Mental Health Awareness Month. In a bid to combat the stigma attached to mental illness, leading health firm Pharma Dynamics launched a 31-day social media campaign to kickstart a conversation surrounding mental health. Is it counterproductive to launch a mental health campaign on the same platforms that usually trigger insecurities, anxiety and depression? Absolutely not. If anything, social media has been one of the major catalysts towards destigmatising mental illness over the past few years and recent months:

To further support the example portrayed by the above tweets, Shouqat Mugjenker, mental health portfolio manager for Pharma Dynamics says ‘contrary to popular belief, new research shows that social media engagement may have positive effects on mental health.’

‘While there is no doubt that spending too much time online can have negative consequences, social media can, however, play a major role in blowing open the conversation around taboo subjects, such as mental health,’ says Shouqat. The #Letstalkmentalhealth social media campaign this month therefore aims to dispel the misconceptions that many South Africans have about people living with mental illness, as these factors often prevent people from getting help.

The dialogue currently happening on social media suggests that there’s a high prevalence of mental illness among students and adults in South Africa. According to the South African Stress and Health study (SASH), the most recent available research on psychiatric disorders in SA, an estimated 16.5% of South African adults currently live with a mental health disorder, while about 30% will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Given that this data was collected in 2009, figures are likely to be much higher, as work-life balance demands are increasingly weighing adults down globally. But beyond open discussions on social media, there are other ways in which these platforms help researchers with depression diagnoses.

Social media patterns:

In 2017, scientists from the Universities of Vermont and Harvard developed a programme that reviewed Instagram data from 166 participants of whom 71 were clinically depressed. Photos posted by depression-sufferers tended to be darker with bluer and greyer tones; received more comments from the study cohort; contained more faces and when filters were used, a black and white filter was favoured. Depression-sufferers generally also posted more often. Once researchers put their findings into an algorithm, the computer programme was able to correctly identify about 70% of depressed subjects.

To get help for either yourself or a loved one, you can reach out to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group or simply start by joining the #Letstalkmentalhealth conversation on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

2. Health: Breast cancer

October is also primarily known as breast cancer awareness month, symbolised by the colour pink. This is one of the most common cancers in both developed and developing countries, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. According to a worldwide population study published in Lancet Oncol in 2008, up to half of the women affected by breast cancer in developing countries were younger than 50 years. As a result, there are various guidelines women of different ages should follow in order to maintain the health of their breasts.

They are as follows: 

Age 20-39:

  • Do a monthly breast self-examination.
  • Have a clinical breast examination by a healthcare professional done every three years.
  • Be aware of your personal breast cancer risk.

Age 40 and over:

  • Do a monthly breast self-examination.
  • Have an annual clinical breast examination by a healthcare professional.
  • Go for an annual mammogram.

Furthermore, in our efforts to destigmatise certain illnesses, it’s also worth debunking myths surrounding them. Breast cancer is not necessarily stigmatised in the same way as HIV, TB and mental illness, but it is one ailment that is highly characterised by myths. Dr Justus Apffelstaedt, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health as well as soft tissue surgical oncology, has debunked four of the most common myths for us.

Myth 1

‘Mammograms are painful.’

Truth

Dr Apffelstaedt reassures that ‘at most, a mammogram may be a little uncomfortable. However, the short-term discomfort outweighs the long-term benefits.’ If the breasts are painful, a mammogram should not be done until the reason for the tenderness has been addressed.

Myth 2

‘Chemotherapy is the most important factor in reducing breast cancer-related deaths.’

Truth

According to Dr Apffelstaedt, the most effective way to treat breast cancer is with a multidisciplinary approach, combining a number of treatment options that include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal and biologic agents. ‘Specialist centres, that see more than 150 breast cancer cases per year, will achieve the best results, as the most accurate diagnosis can be made and the most appropriate treatment options will be chosen here,’ he adds.

Myth 3

‘Smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.’

Truth

Smokers who do, in fact, have an increased risk of breast cancer are those who fall under the subset of women with a specific genetic makeup that prevents them from detoxifying cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke efficiently.

Myth 4

‘It is better to remove the entire breast when you have breast cancer.’

Truth

Because breast cancer often spreads to other areas early in the course of the disease, a mastectomy will not guarantee you better survival than breast conserving therapy. As such, it is not the tumour in the breast tissue that kills patients, but the spread of the cancer to the brain, lungs and other areas.

Not everyone is able or willing to undergo a preventive double mastectomy the same way Angelina Jolie did circa 2013, but there are a few measures you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

  • Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Watch your weight. Increased body fat is linked to a raise in oestrogen levels.
  • Exercise more to decrease your breast cancer risk by 30%.
  • Don’t drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day. (See Ocsober guidelines)
  • Don’t eat too many saturated fats. Avoid fried foods, including junk food.

October has therefore clearly established itself as that well-meaning month that draws our attention to things that matter. Seems like the perfect opportunity to make some lifestyle changes before a new year approaches. Look after yourselves.

For more info on other illnesses affecting South African women, see this article.